Free condoms in public schools? Not in California — at least, not yet

Gov. Newsom has vetoed legislation that would have provided condoms at public schools in the state.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has vetoed legislation that would have provided free condoms to students in public schools in an effort to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and the rate of teen pregnancy.

Sen. Caroline Menjivar (D-Panorama City) introduced the bill, which would have prohibited retailers from refusing to sell condoms to teen customers. Though Newsom agreed that expanding condom access was “important to supporting improved adolescent sexual health,” he vetoed the bill due to the cost — an explanation that appears to have become boilerplate language for dozens of the governor’s vetoes in recent days.

“With our state facing continuing economic risk and revenue uncertainty, it is important to remain disciplined when considering bills with significant fiscal implications, such as this measure,” Newsom said in the veto message.

This year, the state was forced to deal with a $30 billion budget shortfall. Newsom stated that the Legislature sent him a slew of bills that, if all were passed, would have cost the state $19 billion in unaccounted costs.

However, the cost argument does not quite balance out for Menjivar. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the country spends $16 billion per year treating people with sexually transmitted diseases. Nearly half of all sexually transmitted infections were acquired by people aged 15 to 24.

“I understand. “We have a deficit,” Menjivar admitted. “But what are our priorities, and what can we actually end up saving money on?”

From 2009 to 2019, the rate of gonorrhea among Californian youth increased from 94.5 cases per 100,000 to 131.6 cases per 100,000. According to the most recent Population Reference Bureau data, chlamydia rates have dropped slightly, from 803 per 100,000 to 787.5 per 100,000 during the same time period. Though both infection rates fell in 2020, researchers attribute this to a lack of monitoring during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For years, students at El Cerrito High School have had free condoms. The James Morehouse Project, the school’s wellness center, collaborates with Contra Costa County’s public health division, and every time a student receives a condom, they meet with a wellness center staff member for a health education visit. Jenn Nader, the center’s director, stated that one in every five students at the high school has used some form of sexual health care.

“At our school, we see how frequently students use (these resources),” Nader explained. “They’re not looking for an unplanned pregnancy.” They aren’t looking for a sexually transmitted disease. If you provide them with the means to stay safe and healthy, they will.”

Ria Babaria, 18, from Riverside, had the opposite experience. Despite the fact that she is now a freshman at the University of California-Los Angeles, Babaria claims that her former high school did not provide condoms to students, and that teenagers were turned away from purchasing condoms in stores due to their age.

“There are a lot of barriers that stop us from getting these resources,” said Babaria, who is also a student leader at Generation Up, a student-led advocacy group that co-sponsored the bill with Menjivar. “There is a huge stigma attached to students having sex at this stage.” But the fact is that it will happen whether parents or adults like it or not. Giving (teens) the resources they need to practice safe sex is something that is rarely discussed.”

Newsom’s veto comes at a critical juncture in the national debate over reproductive rights. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 34 states have moved to restrict abortion access across the country since Roe v. Wade, the federal right to abortion that had been in place for 50 years, was overturned in 2022. In California, Newsom reaffirmed his support for abortion rights while also strengthening safeguards for patients and doctors.

Despite this, according to the California School-Based Health Alliance, a nonprofit that works to improve health care in schools, less than 5% of California students have access to a comprehensive school-based health center that provides reproductive services. According to Menjivar, organizations are sometimes barred from providing sexual health resources at schools in more rural or conservative areas, even if the state is not required to pay for them.

“As a nation, we are already confronted with reproductive rights for all people being threatened,” said Angela Glymph, CEO of Peer Health Exchange, an Oakland-based nonprofit that connects schools to health education. “This decision to veto this bill feels like another one of those threats.”

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